Celebrating the key role of women engineers

21 Jun 2024

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This year’s International Women in Engineering Day on Sunday 23 June celebrates the amazing work that women engineers around the world are doing to support lives and livelihoods every day. Under the theme for the day, Enhanced by Engineering, organisers the Women’s Engineering Society are profiling the best, brightest and bravest women in engineering, who are making a positive difference to people’s everyday lives and helping to build towards a brighter future.

To mark the day, below FIDIC president Catherine Karakatsanis talks about why it’s important to celebrate women engineers on days like this and the role they are playing in the industry. We also hear from Michele Kruger, chair of FIDIC’s diversity, equity and inclusion advisory council on why it’s crucial that women are recognised, valued and rewarded for the role that they play in engineering.

Catherine Karakatsanis, Chief Operating Officer at Morrison Hershfield (now Stantec) and President, FIDIC

Why are initiatives like Women in Engineering Day important?

Initiatives like this are so important, for our industry and for women. By celebrating the significant contribution that women make in our industry it helps to encourage more women to join our industry and gain the knowledge, skills and experience required to enjoy a rewarding career. In highlighting the role of women in enhancing people’s lives and communities through engineering, we are also raising the profile of the excellent work that our industry does in creating a better world – and that is a good thing!

What skills do women bring to the table when it comes to engineering of major projects?

Major engineering and infrastructure projects are complex and diverse undertakings, so it makes absolute sense to have a diverse range of people working on them. Diversity means participation and leadership from all segments of society and a workforce that reflects the makeup of our society. That means including women in our profession as much as possible as they bring a diverse range of skills to engineering that enhance the service that firms provide in many ways. Collaboration and teamwork particularly come to mind. In my experience, women have the required technical skills and often also are strong communicators, facilitating clear and open dialogue within teams and they also tend to foster inclusive team environments, ensuring all voices are heard and considered. I also think that women excel in building and maintaining cohesive teams, promoting a collaborative working culture and in bringing a different perspective to problem solving. Our industry is essential in securing health, safety and economic prosperity around the world and to do this effectively we need to engage the best minds, so we need to have different views and ways of thinking, which means ensuring more women join and stay in the industry.

In your experience, how are women making a positive difference in this industry?

We know that women want to make a difference and the ability to contribute to the wellbeing of society is important to them. Women want to make the world a better place – so engineering really is a great profession to do just that. By applying their technical skills and unique perspectives, women are significantly enhancing the field of engineering, encouraging innovation, collaboration, inclusivity and bringing a diverse skill set to many projects around the world. The successful projects that women have worked on also shows that a traditionally male dominated industry is in fact diverse and can be home to different types of people with a wide range of skills. Over the years, women have played a leading role in many landmark engineering and infrastructure projects and we need to highlight those while promoting the fantastic work of women today to encourage others to join our industry. Women also bring diverse cultural perspectives, enhancing global engineering projects and their often-varied life experiences can contribute to a richer understanding of complex problems. Women in engineering can also serve as role models and mentors, encouraging more young women to enter the the field.

How has your organisation benefited from the input of women?

As a woman in a male dominated profession, I think it is very important to increase the number of women in the consulting engineering industry. It is something I feel very strongly about and have been working to attract and improve conditions for women in engineering – both in my professional and volunteer work for many years. I know that being at a senior level position and on the board at my company allowed me to help make changes that improved working conditions for women in our firm, Morrison Hershfield now Stantec and we have really benefited from the input of women. We do not think about it as a separate ‘thing’ because women are so embedded in the way that we work, organise and manage the firm. I cannot envisage our business without women playing a key and integral role within it and long may that remain the case. We are determined to increase female representation within the engineering profession and in our own company not only for the benefit of our industry and communities but also to provide an opportunity for women to enjoy the work that has meaning, is fulfilling and helps to create a more sustainable world.

Michele Kruger, Functional General Manager, Water Infrastructure at SMEC and Chair, FIDIC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council

Why is it important that women are recognised, valued and rewarded for the role that they play in engineering?

The more diverse the team, the more the team is able to innovate and collaborate, bringing the best from the entire team. The resultant infrastructure is not only fit for purpose but more inclusive. Women play a large role in this and we should do our best to attract, retain and promote top female talent to the engineering industry to redress the fact that we have such low percentage of females in the sector.

What’s your view on the gender pay gap, which is still a real issue in our industry?

The pay gap is not so apparent at the entry level or middle management positions, but because there are so few females in senior management or the C-suite, the average salary is much lower compared to the average of males. So, the only way we can address this is to get more women in these positions and ensure equal pay for equal work if there are salary discrepancies.

How do we ensure that we get more women into the engineering and infrastructure sector?

Women do very well during tertiary studies and the numbers are increasing at the entry level positions. However, when it comes to middle management and higher, that is when family obligations, such as caring for children or elder parents, start putting a strain on time and energy. By allowing flexibility on how families can manage this (with both partners as a team), we will retain top female talent in the industry. As managers we need to not only allow flexibility but to encourage it. This will allow males also to engage more and not try to fit a certain role with limited support to the family, as has historically been the case. Once we have attracted top female talent we need to support them in their growth, ensuring that they have sponsors who can fight for them and break down barriers and fight biases.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Yes! From my experience the push now is no longer an HR issue but is supported at the very top levels of management. Historically this issue was brushed over by ticking the correct boxes to show that we are trying, however the reporting instruments for many governments around the world no longer allow this and real change is expected, or you will no longer be able to tender for work from those governments.

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